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João Félix Is Atlético Madrid’s Vital Spark Plug

Joao Felix of Atletico de Madrid in action during the UEFA Champions League Group A stage match between Atletico de Madrid and RB Salzburg at Estadio Wanda Metropolitano on October 27, 2020
Angel Martinez/Getty Images

When João Félix moved from Benfica to Atlético Madrid for €126 million in the summer of 2019, he came with more expectations than realized performances. The then-19-year-old had impressed at Benfica, particularly in a master class against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, but he was still just that: a 19-year-old with a price tag that reflected what he could be more than what he was. Skeptics of his might have felt emboldened after his hit-and-miss first season in Spain, but in his second year, Félix is already starting to vindicate those who kept the faith.

It’s still early in Félix’s second campaign under Diego Simeone, but the soon-to-be-21-year-old forward had his first iconic match for Los Colchoneros on Tuesday. Facing a tough Red Bull Salzburg squad in the second group stage game of the Champions League, Félix carried his side to a 3–2 win, scoring a brace and generally putting in his best performance in Atlético colors.

Despite a reputation for tactical rigidity, Simeone has given his talented No. 7 free rein this season. The manager has adapted his trademark 4-4-2 formation into something resembling a 4-3-3 that empowers his best player by letting him roam wherever the space appears. Nominal left midfielder Koke tucks in as the third central midfielder, his counterpart on the right, Ángel Correa, pushes high, and Félix balances it all out by drifting from his central position out to the left flank. Though Félix lacks game-breaking pace, he is quick in tight spaces and especially with the ball at his feet. This allows him to play a hybrid winger/striker role, similar to what Antoine Griezmann used to do for Atlético.

Félix’s first goal, and Atlético’s equalizer after Salzburg turned a 1–0 deficit into a 2–1 lead, is a perfect example of how this fluidity helps Félix shine. The Portuguese starts on the left just behind Luis Suárez, receives a pass and drives forward. He then lays the ball off to Correa before filling in the space to the right of the Argentine, who returns the favor, setting up Félix for a tap-in. Félix and Correa are Atlético’s most dynamic attackers, and though this play was simple in its execution, the constant drive forward by both players made it happen.

The second goal showed off another part of Félix’s game, one that needs no tactical knowledge to understand: his first touch is butter-soft, which in this case allowed him to corral an errant shot (pass?) from Thomas Lemar, kick the ball up to himself, and then drill it home for the game-winner:

It’s just one game, so drawing any big-picture conclusions about Félix’s eventual worth and the value of his transfer fee is still premature. (Though the Portuguese forward has been stellar in Champions League contests throughout his tenure in Spain, as he’s scored five goals in eight Champions League games for Atlético). But the things Félix showed on Tuesday are exactly the things that made the club break its transfer record in order to secure his services. On top of the two goals, he also had 7-of-7 completed dribbles, 11 touches in the Salzburg box, 4 shots on target, and this near-wondergoal that was only denied by the crossbar.

For the season, Félix leads the team in completed dribbles per game, is second in key passes and shots per contest, and is top for long passes per game by an attacker. He’s the modern forward, capable of scoring bangers and assisting his teammates in equal fashion, and his dynamism on the ball allows him to make fools of defenders that give him any space. If Félix continues to play with the confidence he showed on Tuesday, and the freedom allowed to him within Simeone’s tweaked system, there’s a chance that the soccer world will look back on his €126 million transfer fee as a bargain for one of the world’s best and brightest prospects.